Manager Gordon Mills had a habit of changing his client’s names. He turned Thomas John Woodward into Tom Jones, and shortly after transformed Arnold George Dorsey into Engelbert Humperdinck, a name borrowed from a well-known 19th century German composer. Under his new name, the artist born in Madras, British India, and raised in Leicester, England, had his first major hit with a remake of a country song, “Release Me,” in 1967.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the single’s worldwide success, Decca/UMe is releasing Engelbert 50 today (June 2) in the U.S. With a U.K. street date of May 19, the album debuted on the official album chart at No. 5, making it the eighth top-five album of Humperdinck’s career. The two-CD collection includes Humperdinck’s long list of hits as well as two new songs. Dividing his time between his homes in Los Angeles and Leicester, the singer took some time to talk to Billboard about the new set.
How does it feel to be celebrating 50 years?
It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe where the time has gone. It’s been exceedingly wonderful. I was over in the U.K. doing promotion and the young ladies in charge made me do some television shows, which helped put me back in the charts. I’m celebrating my 50th year and the Beatles are marking the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Speaking of the Beatles, when “Release Me” spent six weeks at No. 1 in the U.K., it prevented the Fab Four from hitting the top spot with one of their greatest singles, “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
They were such a monster group, I never thought I stood a chance against them. “Penny Lane” would have been their 12th No. 1. Before it was a hit, “Release Me” spent three months sitting on the shelf. Then I appeared on a TV variety series, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. That exposure made “Release Me” a massive hit. The very next day we had orders for 80,000. The most I sold in one day was 127,000. Fate gave me that TV show.
Did you ever discuss your triumph over “Penny Lane” with any of the Beatles?
When I met Paul [McCartney] and Ringo [Starr], they were too much the gentlemen to even bring it up.
How did you find “Release Me”? Did Gordon Mills bring it to you?
Yes, Gordon found an instrumental version by (British saxophonist) Frank Weir. I heard the melody and thought it could be a hit. I asked if we could find the lyrics. When we heard the words, it was a double whammy for me because they sounded terrific. Then we brought in a great arranger, Charles Blackwell.
Were you familiar with any of the earlier recordings? The song was written in 1949 by Eddie Miller and Robert Yount. Jimmy Heap, Ray Price and Kitty Wells recorded country versions in 1954 and Little Esther Phillips had an R&B hit with the song in 1962.
I never heard any of them before I recorded the song. After, I heard Ray Price’s version. He used to tell his audiences, “This used to be my song.” He always mentioned my name in his shows.
In April 1967, “Release Me” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, eventually peaking at No. 4. How did you feel about your American success?
It was unreal. After I made it in England, Gordon said we have to go to America. I appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and the exposure was unbelievable.
One of the songs on Engelbert 50 is “Strangers in the Night.” I understand you have some history with this composition.
[Composer] Bert Kaempfert played it for me in Spain. He also played “Spanish Eyes” and “Wonderland by Night” for me. I went back to London and recorded all three songs. I thought “Strangers in the Night” would be my single and then I was told I couldn’t release it because Frank Sinatra had recorded it and was releasing it as a single. I wasn’t going to argue with Frank. His version went to No. 1.
Is the version on the new album your recording from back then?
No. We couldn’t find the original. It’s buried somewhere. Everyone searched the archives, but I think it was ordered to be hidden. We recorded a new version but it doesn’t compare to the original, which we recorded with a big orchestra. It’s far superior.
Finally, when you were starting out, did you ever think you would one day be celebrating 50 years of your career?
I never thought that. I was just happy to have success at that time. It was always a question in my head about how long it was going to last. If you don’t put out material that’s going to last, you’re not going to last. Over the years, I sold over 150 million records. My music has been my passport to the world, and it’s been amazing for me.